POLITICS

It's Not Wrong For The Media To Explain Obamacare. It's Journalism.

09/18/2013 07:38 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2013

TPM's Tom Kludt highlights a very strange exchange Wednesday between former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and MSNBC's Chuck Todd:

During a segment on "Morning Joe," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans "have successfully messaged against it" but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that's President Barack Obama's job.

"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it," Todd told Rendell. "They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."

Todd has since complained about people making the obvious inference: that Todd was absolving the media of the responsibility of cutting through the falsehoods, upon which much of the "successful messaging" against Obamacare is founded. "Somebody decided to troll w/mislding headline: point I actually made was folks shouldn't expect media to do job WH has FAILED to do re: ACA," he tweeted. (I think what Todd was looking for was "point I was trying to make," but 140-character limit and all that.)

Now, I think there is some truth to what Todd is saying. In my estimation, the White House has not done a great job explaining the health care law to the American people. And the remarkable consistency we've seen in polling on the health care law bears this out. The findings of Obamacare polls have been and continue to be the following:

1. People are asked to approve or disapprove of Obamacare, and most disapprove.

2. People are subsequently asked to weigh in on the component parts and benefits of Obamacare; of these, they approve.

3. People are asked if they were aware that these component parts and benefits, of which they approve, are what Obamacare does; they do not know about this.

So it's definitely a failure of information dissemination. Part of the blame rests with obstructionist opponents, I'll grant you, but lest you think the Obama administration believes they aren't somehow responsible for it, let's recall that only very recently, "Secretary of Explaining Stuff" Bill Clinton was dispatched to provide this service on behalf of the Affordable Care Act. The White House is doing more now than they've ever done to get the word out on how the law works and what it does.

Here's the thing though: The Obama administration wants to "sell" Obamacare. No one in the media is obliged to do the same. And while part of "selling" Obamacare involves providing information, it doesn't necessarily follow that the provision of information constitutes "salesmanship."

But leaving that aside, there are still matters to consider.

First, it's not clear to me how properly informing people about how laws work falls outside the journalistic mission. Surely any journalist who reports on the Affordable Care Act has an obligation to learn something about it. And if you possess vital information that serves the public, it's just perverse to keep it to yourself. If the guy in the traffic copter filed this report, "Kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own," on the occasion of every morning commute, we would call that bad journalism.

The notion that there's no place in the journalistic realm for the simple dissemination of helpful information is just bunk. But it seems to me that many in the cable news/political media realm perceive "informing the public of how Obamacare works" as an act that's favorable to one partisan side and not the other. This is a task, perhaps, that they don't want to own, lest they be thought of as having "picked a side."

There is, however, a huge difference between neutral information that simply informs and false information that misinforms. Not only is there a place in journalism for calling false things out for their falseness; this is basically what journalism is. If someone tells a lie about Obamacare, reporters should feel free to point this out.

Once again, the reason they don't is because they don't want to be perceived as having picked a side, and so what happens is that common, everyday liars get elevated to "people with a unique and equally valid point of view." This is all done for the sake of avoiding the implication of partisan bias, but it ignores another thing you can become implicated in: the peddling of bullshit.

Here's some good news, though. Even if a lie you debunk allows one partisan side to "win" and the other to "lose," the only side you've bound yourself to is the side that includes your readers and viewers. See, if you look over here, you will find a piece I wrote in which I refer to a lot of lies about Obamacare as "lies about Obamacare." But if you look over here, you'll find something I wrote criticizing the White House's stated preference for having Larry Summers run the Federal Reserve.

I point this out to demonstrate that when I pointed out the lies and distortions that have been launched against Obamacare, I didn't become a member of someone's political "team." I didn't become infected with Obama-Love Cooties. I simply tried to do right by my audience.

Now, I'm going to take Chuck Todd at his word when he says that he wasn't trying to suggest the media have no role in debunking falsehoods. I object to the implication that the media have no role to play in the simple dissemination of information, but I need to be generous in my assumptions, and I sincerely believe that if Chuck Todd ferreted out a useful piece of information about Obamacare, he'd go ahead and tell people about it. Yes, as I've indicated above, the Obama administration really does have a responsibility to explain this law to the public. But informing the public is the full-time job of journalists as well. The notion that a journalist can possess the means to mitigate public confusion on any topic and pass on doing so is just unfathomable to me. In many cases, the information you need to perform that task is hard-won.

Roger Ebert used to refer to movies in which the entire conflict hangs on one piece of information that somehow manages to not get conveyed at the moment when it's most needed as having an "Idiot Plot." If I were giving guidance on the matter of what the media should do about informing the public about the Affordable Care Act, or the debt ceiling, or anything else, I'd tell them to be as neutral or evenhanded as they like. Definitely treat claims made by either side with skepticism. Think of the information you provide as a service to your audience, not as a crutch for a political clique. If you spot a lie, call it a lie. If you have an informed take, put it out there.

But please, please, do not author Idiot Plots. Do not hurt the world.

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